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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


Youth Is a Sickness

Ferdinand Bruckner

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To purchase Youth Is a Sickness

Title: Youth Is a Sickness
Author: Ferdinand Bruckner
Genre: Play
Written: 1926 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 120 pages
Original in: German
Availability: in Two Plays of Weimar Germany - US
in Two Plays of Weimar Germany - UK
in Two Plays of Weimar Germany - Canada
in Maladie de la jeunesse/Les Criminels - France
in Werke, Tagebücher, Briefe. - Deutschland
El mal de la juventud - España
  • German title: Krankheit der Jugend
  • Published in Two Plays of Weimar Germany
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Laurence Senelick
  • Previously translated, including as Pains of Youth by Daphne Moore (1987) and Martin Crimp (2009)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : arguably overheated, but quite effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times* . 30/10/2009 Sarah Hemming
FAZ . 7/1/2017 Simon Strauss
The Guardian* . 28/10/2009 Michael Billington
The Independent* . 29/10/2009 Paul Taylor
The NY Times* . 19/2/2014 Rachel Saltz
The Telegraph* . 30/10/2009 Charles Spencer
TLS* . 13/11/2009 Maria Margaronis

  From the Reviews:
  • "For anyone who thinks that today’s students are badly behaved, Ferdinand Bruckner’s Pains of Youth should prove an eye-opener. Bruckner’s play depicts a group of wealthy students in 1920s Vienna, who bed-hop, pop pills, drink excessively and generally rebel against bourgeois society. " - Sarah Hemming, Financial Times

  • "Man kann Bruckners Stück nur spielen, wenn man diese Alternativsetzung ernst nimmt. Wenn man wirklich Angst hat vor dem Verbürgerlichen, dem Altwerden und nicht meint, es handele sich dabei um einen harmlosen Scherz. Nur wenn man die Differenz zwischen Jugend und Erwachsensein ins Zentrum stellt, erhält der Nihilismus des Stücks eine Bedeutung über Zeiten und Orte hinweg." - Simon Strauss, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The succcess of Mitchell's revival, however, lies in taking a potentially overheated play and treating it as a forensic analysis of a doomed, death-haunted generation." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "The students are morbidly conscious of all their impulses, right down to the sub-volitional. A certain kind of reviewer may complain that they don't connect what's going on in their turbulent insides to the body politic enough (if at all). But the analogy would be with Doctor Faustus. Marlowe didn't need to mention the plague, a crucial context in a play about a diabolically purchased 24-year lease of life because the plague was literally in the very air the audience breathed. Mutatis mutandis, this goes for political crisis and Pains of Youth." - Paul Taylor, The Independent

  • "There’s a lot that’s striking in Bruckner’s script, starting with the fact that the story’s three medical students are women. (...) And sexual relations, treated frankly, have a curdled unhealthiness that is nicely of the time and place." - Rachel Saltz, The New York Times

  • "Bruckner's characters, however, though very active when it comes to their sex lives, are as depressive and depressing a bunch as you are ever likely to encounter. (...) Rarely can sex have been as unsexy as it is here. Every relationship is mired in a toxic mixture of power games and despair. (...) I can see that the play is historically significant in both its sexual frankness and portrayal of the pessimism and soul-sickness that enveloped much of Europe after the First World War, allowing Nazism to flourish. But that doesn't make watching it any more bearable. The characters are flatly drawn, and though the truly great miserabilist masterpieces -- King Lear, say, or Beckett's Endgame -- leave the audience purged and braced, this narcissistic, self-pitying bunch merely leave you feeling irritated." - Charles Spencer, The Telegraph

  • "(I)n the wrong hands it can seem like a melodramatic period piece steeped in Veronal and hysteria. But in Martin Crimp’s crisp, raw version as directed by Katie Mitchell, it becomes sharp-edged and eloquent, a forensic anatomy of a death-haunted generation that is at once emotional and cerebral." - Maria Margaronis, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Youth Is a Sickness is set in a student boardinghouse, and the character-list explains: "The girls are all very young, the men somewhat older". They are adults, however: the youngest character is the maid, Lucy, who is eighteen, while the three other women -- Marie, Desiree, and Irene -- are in their twenties, and at various stages in their medical studies, with Marie getting ready to celebrate her graduation. They are all academically successful, and driven. Irene is devoted to science and competitive, two semesters behind Desiree but planning on catching up with her ("we'll see who'll be the first to finish her thesis"). Meanwhile, Desiree is cramming for her next exam when the play opens -- and in complete command of the material.
       Their backgrounds are different: Desiree comes from an aristocratic family but ran away from her privileged home when she was seventeen. Irene comes from humble circumstances and has reïnvented herself -- complete with name-change (her actual name is Irma). Marie, meanwhile, is an "ambitious farm girl from Passau" -- coïncidentally the same town Lucy is from --, who comfortably takes charge (not that that's always appreciated: "Don't play schoolma'rm," Irene complains at one point, for example); even Freder acknowledges about Marie: "you are the very cliché of a young woman with full potential" -- though he doesn't mean it as a compliment.
       The somewhat older men are also considerably more idle: perpetual student Freder is on the same track but far behind Marie ("You've managed to do in ten semesters what it took me twenty-five to do"), Petrell a would-be writer -- with an emphasis on would-be ("Poet ? I don't know that I'm a poet", he admits, and for all his ambition -- "I'd like to write a great novel" -- isn't able to get down to it), and Alt's medical career was upended by his idealism, leading to a two year prison sentence for manslaughter.
       Marie has supported Petrell for the past two years, but Irene is now reaching out for him, while Desiree longs for an affection she hasn't found since childhood, with her sister, and clings ever more to Marie. Manipulative Freder has Lucy steal for him, and then even begin to walk the streets -- in which she surprisingly finds a fulfillment she'd long been missing -- and claims he could even get Marie to do the same.
       Desiree is the most tortured -- tempted, eventually, even to join Lucy walking the streets. Alt observes:

She's known for a long time that everything always ends in disappointment.
       Alt also diagnoses Marie:
ALT: Everything's bottled up in you. Let things out.
MARIE: Show me the instruction manual.
ALT: All you need is to be casual. Be crueler to people, forget yourself, and you'll find yourself again.
       Aimless and unrooted beyond their medical studies, the women struggle with their paths -- and their relationships with the men. As, for example, Freder recognizes in Irene: "You cling desperately to your books because your instinct puts you on guard against reality". Unable to treat things as casually (or resignedly) as the men are, they are torn by how to move forward; one, eventually, takes the most drastic of action, killing herself.
       Youth Is a Sickness comes close to melodrama, but manages to largely avoid it -- or at least avoid the necessity of it: Bruckner's drama is loose enough to allow for a variety of stagings, including the lazily melodramatic. But as is -- on the page -- it's the honest pathos that stands out. It is a play with fairly extreme characters -- passive Petrell; manipulative Freder, who enjoys interfering with everything; manic Desiree -- but the sensible yet still dissatisfied Marie makes for a strong central figure, a firm pole around which the wilder characters do their dances.
       The characters are also interesting, especially the women: not one but three smart and independent women, who have also attained their independence in different ways -- remarkable for a play set in the 1920s -- as well as the bubbly Lucy. The men are perhaps too extreme -- though in the case of de-sexed Alt, broken by his past, and would-be writer Petrell, that's in part also because there simply isn't enough time and space devoted to filling in those defining pasts.
       Remarkable in its candor for its times, Youth Is a Sickness holds up fairly well almost a century later. If too quickly sketched to truly mirror contemporary twenty-something life, it nevertheless shares enough elements to still feel relevant.

       Translator Laurence Senelick's useful Introduction to the volume Two Plays of Weimar Germany in which Youth Is a Sickness appears offers a good introduction to the playwright and his unusual career. Among the interesting titbits: turning to writing under the well-guarded pseudonym 'Ferdinand Bruckner', Youth Is a Sickness was Theodor Tagger's first great success; at the time he ran a theater in Berlin and was urged to stage the play by an actor who was unaware that he was its author; ironically, he might have saved his position had he done so, because when it was then staged there it was a huge success; instead, he lost his position (but at least he kept the secret of his authorship a while longer).

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 September 2018

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Youth Is a Sickness: Reviews (*: review of earlier translation): Other books by Ferdinand Bruckner under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian playwright Ferdinand Bruckner (actually: Theodor Tagger) lived 1891 to 1958.

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© 2018 the complete review

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